Off and on, for 25 years, I participated in National Review cruises as a speaker. I met lots of wonderful people who were intelligent, curious, and great company—but there were always cranks and conspiracy theorists too. Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary had killed Vince Foster. I choked down my bite of chicken Kiev and responded, as equably as possible, “Well, for that to be true, she would also have had to transport his body to Fort Marcy Park without the Secret Service or anyone else noticing.” Several people at the table blinked back at me. Yeah? So?
It was a tell, though I didn’t know it at the time. In later years, I noticed that cruisers weren’t citing mainstream publications for their information. They weren’t even citing National Review (which a fair percentage of the cruisers didn’t even read, I learned). They were getting their news from email lists and subscription newsletters. I noticed the same thing when speaking to conservative audiences. Someone was always buttonholing me and thrusting some obscure publication into my hands.
These people were not hard up. They hadn’t been displaced from their union jobs by outsourcing. The ladies wore designer dresses and the men sported pinky diamonds. In 2020, people earning more than $100,000 voted for Trump over Biden by 11 points, whereas Biden earned the support of those earning less than $50,000 by 15 points.
There’s a theory that people have rallied to Trump and alternative news sources because they feel disrespected by the mainstream, liberal-leaning press. They bristle at the condescension of liberals who, they believe, despise country music, guns, and Cracker Barrel. There is some truth in this, but my experience with conservatives makes me skeptical of that as a complete explanation. Sure, the urban/rural divide is real—and not limited to the United States—but resentment of elites has always been with us. From suspicion of the First Bank of the United States among the Jeffersonians to the populist movement of the 1890s, “coastal elites” have always been despised by some. But it didn’t drive people into abject lunacy in the past, or at least, not on the scale we see today.
The resentment motive can’t account for our volume of crazy. A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority—not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn’t understand. It was a key feature of Rush Limbaugh’s appeal. He frequently suggested that he understood that real story beneath the official version, and could penetrate the opaque Washington drama by stripping away the polite fictions to reveal the ugly realities beneath.
After decades of this diet, and with an enormous turbo-charge from Trump, the conspiracists are in the driver’s seat of the Republican party. Today, the glazed-eyed-Hillary-murdered-Vince Foster-Republicans are, if not the majority, at least a plurality of the Republican party. This is profoundly worrying, because, let’s face it, they’ve suspended their critical faculties. Trump spent months saying mail-in ballots were ripe for fraud. He openly declared that he would not accept the legitimacy of any election he lost. He pressured friendly state legislatures, like Pennsylvania’s, not to count mail ballots until election day so that he could weave a story of victory if he did well with in-person voting on Election night, knowing that the count for mail ballots would take longer.
Now consider the average Republican voter. If anyone of their personal acquaintance had said, about an upcoming company baseball game, or their kid’s weekend soccer match, that the refs were all corrupt and that the other team always cheats, and then after losing the game, claimed that it was all rigged, they’d roll their eyes and say, “That guy is a little cracked.”
Trump is more than a little cracked. What Peter Wehner calls his “disordered personality” has been on vivid display for years. The peevishness, the pettiness, the colossal narcissism—to say nothing of his larger faults. But the normal, ordinary evaluations of character and credibility are suspended in Trump’s case.
His legal challenges to the results have been so absurd that if they’d been filed by anyone other than the president of the United States, they might have been thrown out as “frivolous.” They have lost 49 of the 50 suits they’ve filed, and not just lost, but lost with blistering smackdowns from the judges, including those appointed by Trump. “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president,” wrote Stephanos Bibas, a judge on the Third Circuit. Another judge wrote:
This Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence. In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.
In case you missed it, the Republican party of Arizona is actually asking Republicans to “fight and die” for Trump’s stolen election lie. Retweeting Trumpist Ali Akbar who said “I am willing to give my life for this fight,” the Arizona GOP replied “He is. Are you?” (The account has since deleted the tweets.)
Eric Metaxas, who wrote a well-received biography of William Wilberforce in 2007 but has tumbled all the way down the rabbit hole into Trump cultism, released a video testament telling Trump, “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us.” Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is calling for a military coup. One of the president’s lawyers called for an official who oversaw election cybersecurity to be shot at dawn.
Even more disturbing than the crackpot statements of hard-core cultists are the Republican elected officials who are behaving like automatons stamped out of a brain-removal factory. The Washington Post contacted all of the Republicans serving in the House and Senate to ask who won the election. Two said Trump, 27 said Biden, and the other 220 declined to say. Ted Cruz, Mr. “Constitutional Conservative,” is volunteering to argue Trump’s utterly fraudulent stolen election case before the Supreme Court. The Court has other ideas.
A Republican Georgia election official pleaded with the president and others to behave with minimal decency. Noting that people simply doing their jobs—along with their family members—had received explicit rape and death threats, Gabriel Sterling got emotional, predicting, “Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed,” if the president and his henchmen continue the incitement. Within hours of that plea, dozens of armed people gathered outside the home of the Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson as she was decorating a Christmas tree with her four-year-old son. “Stop the steal,” they chanted, and “you’re murderers.”
And then there are the polls showing that shocking numbers of rank-and-file Republicans are buying this big lie. A YouGov/Economist poll found that 73 percent of Republicans had little or no confidence that the election was conducted fairly. A Morning Consult/Politico survey found that 67 percent of Republicans said the election was probably or definitely not free and fair. And a Monmouth University poll found that 75 percent of Republicans were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately. Sixty-four Republican members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have signed a letter asking that members of Congress throw out Pennsylvania’s slate of electors.
We have now reached the stage where it isn’t just that Republicans fail to rebuke Trump. It isn’t just that Republicans are frightened into silence by fear of the base. We are now at the stage when a critical mass of the Republican party has adopted Trump’s disordered personality for its own. The Republican party is, in this iteration, a danger to American democracy. Our urgent task is, to borrow a phrase, to repeal and replace it.